UK battle rap is a weird and wonderful world of extremes. It has produced characters so outrageous that they are worthy of Louis Theroux’s attention, but also some of the most complex lyricism anywhere in hip hop. Consisting of equal parts performance, competitive sport and (of course) rap, battling exists in a space of its own yet has consistently sent ripples across the mainstream. Rap battles are most associated with the American style of big stages and violent aggression, catapulted to fame by the likes of Eminem and a slew of viral videos; but, throw in English humour and drinking culture, and you get the comedic brilliance that is the UK scene, which feels more comfortable against the backdrop of parks, pubs and underpasses.
Despite the inescapable association with ‘8 Mile’, the most notorious battles within UK hip hop today are almost entirely acapella and, therefore, place an intense focus on lyrical content. An array of techniques set battle rappers apart from their musical counterparts, from ‘angles’ and ‘personals’ to slogans and rebuttals- battler Illmac may have been half joking when he coined the term “non-rhyming conversational rebuttal”, but the technique is very real and only further draws attention to the depth to which battling has become a craft in itself. Even traditional poetic and rap devices are taken to the extreme here, with talk of ‘multis’ (multisyllabic rhymes), ‘punches’ and ‘schemes’ (commonly referring to associative wordplay) all being commonplace in the wild west of battle forums.
The niche and almost intimate nature of UK battle rap lends an electric atmosphere to its events; with its dedicated and diverse fanbase willingly travelling across the country for the right card, events often feel like hip hop’s response to Comic Con. Having been driven forward over the years by insatiable competitivity and a growing fanbase, UK battle rap has progressed through various eras that have all produced memorable moments in their own right- here’s everything you need to get up to scratch with where the scene is at today.
Early Rap Battles:
Stretching back as far as the roots of hip hop itself in the Bronx in the late 70s, with documented duels occurring as early as the seminal showdown between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee in Harlem in 1981, battling is an undeniable part of MC culture. Thus, the early UK hip hop scene was characterised by these impromptu, mostly freestyle and on-beat clashes as well. Though rarely filmed or documented, echoes from this era still remain, with urban legends such as Chester P getting on stage and serving Chicago rapper Common at his own show in London being enshrined in the whisperings of early UK hip hop forums.
Jumpoff – Spin the Mic – 2005:
A significant turning point in the UK battle rap scene came with the emergence of Jumpoff’s Spin the Mic tournaments in 2005, which pitted MCs against eachother in round-based, freestyle acapella battles, with a cash-prize winner decided by a set of judges. Established in 2003, Jumpoff were not only one of the first companies to publicly organise and film rap battles in the UK, but they also uploaded these battles online, paving the way for the cult following that battle rap enjoys today. These events were a far cry from the spontaneous street battles that most MCs were used to – the raucous Jumpoff audience were just as quick to boo rappers as cheer them on, often in the space of seconds. The stakes were high, forcing MCs to leave an impression on the crowd or leave empty-handed, and with a dent in their pride to boot.
The Jumpoff arena brought a proving grounds on which MCs could test their skill and, with such a wealth of footage still surviving on Youtube, many consider these events to be the starting point for organised battle rap in the UK. A slew of names passed through the Jumpoff ring in its day, including actor Riz Ahmed (of Rogue One/Venom fame) and UK rap heavyweights Asher D and Stig of the Dump. In fact, MOBO award-winner Professor Green practically made his name here, being the first rapper to string together 7 consecutive wins in the Jumpoff arena and then returning in 2008 to do so again, this time receiving £50,000. Pro Green supposedly channelled these winnings into funding his then-upcoming debut album Alive Till I’m Dead and, well, the rest is history.
Jumpoff – World Rap Championships (WRCs) – 2006-2007:
Only a year after their first Spin the Mic tournament, Jumpoff embarked on something bigger with their World Rap Championships. This time bringing together battlers from the UK, US and Canada, the WRCs promised the tantalising title of ‘World Rap Champion’ and a cash prize of $50,000 that really ramped up competition. Most importantly, the WRCs connected key and disparate members from the early rap battle scene, inadvertently shaping the future of battle rap as a whole. Contestants such as Eurgh from the UK, Organik from Canada and Lush One from the US all went on to organise some of the biggest leagues in battle rap history while names like Dizaster, Illmac & Thesaurus, Arkaic and Respek BA are all still dominating to this day.
Battlers in the WRCs were under a lot of pressure to come up with as many punchlines as they could within their short 60 second rounds, leading to both high-energy moments and, shall we say, erratic quality. The focus on the punchlines was such that battlers would typically come up with a line they wanted to say and work backwards to think of ‘setup’ lines that would rhyme, producing a lot of “yo I’m spitting it darker”-type throwaways. Whashisface probably spits it the darkest here though with the wonderfully ridiculous “Yo I’m spittin’ it, the man is the deacon!” to set up the punch “Talkin’ about Hannibal [you] look like something Hannibal’s eaten!”. (For those that may not be aware a deacon is basically a low-ranking priest- complete nonsense.)
Stig/Respek BA vs. Arkaic/Kulez – (2006) – “Yeah that’s true you know we flow better, I feel like I’m battling Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo and Cock Nose from Bo Selecta!”
Early Don’t Flop- 2008 Onwards:
Following the descent of Jumpoff into controversy and poor money management (as will become a theme), former WRC alumni Eurgh forms Don’t Flop as the first UK league to fully embrace the modern pre-written battle format, giving battlers more freedom to construct punchlines and personalise their approaches. In contrast to the nascent scene in the US, a distinct UK style of battling begins to emerge on Don’t Flop, focusing on outrageous content and filmed in suitably dingy locations. Mum and fart jokes had never been shouted by a grown adult so intensely before but, looking back, there is clearly evidence of something more special at play in moments like Respek BA’s knowledge-dropping 3rd Round against Portland rapper Illmaculate, which took to the history books to knock Illmac’s American pride down a peg or two. Respek BA may have been preaching to a choir here but the meticulously crafted round stands out nonetheless in 2011 and really highlights the creative peaks that rap battles can achieve- “So don’t think your country won independence from the Brits, July 4th only gave you the impression that it did!”.
Surviving a long gestation period in the belly of the UK underground, Don’t Flop’s quality and event turnout steadily grows over the years and soon comes to define UK battle rap as a whole. This reaches a critical point in late 2011/ early 2012 when a handful of viral moments catches the attention of the UK mainstream. The battle between English teacher Mark Grist and 17-year old Blizzard was a recipe for success with the ‘teacher versus student’ angle being picked up by everyone from the Telegraph to BBC news. More unexpected was the arrival of Eddy P & Frisko as ambassadors to the mainstream, whose incredibly vulgar content both perfectly represented the early Don’t Flop era but is also entirely un-broadcastable. Unsurprisingly, they were being featured in a Channel 4 documentary about extreme British drinking culture and, of course, the film crew were far more interested in catching shots of Eddy P pouring vodka into his retina than their actual performances.
Lunar C/ Matter vs. Eddy P/ Frisko – (2012) – “I’ll climb stark-bollock naked up your family tree and drag my balls across the face of every slag that I meet!”
‘Bars Over Jokes’ – Don’t Flop Post-2012:
Propelled to fame by their viral-prone roster, Don’t Flop’s 4th Birthday Weekday event in October 2012 was their biggest yet, packing out the room and featuring the likes of Rizzle Kicks and Ghetts in attendance. Where the legendary clash between Sony Music signee Shotty Horroh and American battle veteran Arsonal was the highest-viewed in all of battle rap up until 2017, Jefferson Price vs. Caustic will be forever engraved in the annals battle rap for different reasons. With trademark ruthlessness, Caustic exposes Jefferson Price’s infidelity to his then-fiancé in one of the most painful yet morbidly captivating viewing experiences Don’t Flop has ever produced. Jefferson Price was never seen in the battle world again but, rest assured, this clash is unforgettable.
More significant, however, was Tony D’s victory over much-loved comedic battler Oshea in the 4BW title match, indicating that UK battle rap was moving away from barstool humour and towards more serious ‘barz’. Though many saw this as a capitulation to the more aggressive American style of battling, it is undeniable that the shift facilitated an ever-increasing complexity of the craft. Moreover, the UK hardly lost its distinctive edginess, with unorthodox battlers like Big J, Calcium Kid and Shuffle T & Marlo, and leagues like King of the Ronalds bringing a captivating chaos that continues to fly the flag for park, pub and underpass-era battle rap.
Nonetheless, Don’t Flop really comes into its own from 2012 onwards, garnering a huge online following, strong talent base and a steady release schedule. However…
Battle Rap Today –Don’t Flop Flops:
…this golden age of UK battle rap couldn’t last forever and, from around 2016, viewership and new interest begins to decline heavily. The ever-increasing complexity of battle rap as a sport rendered it harder for new fans to get into while the dissolution of Don’t Flop (into- you guessed it- controversy and poor money management) cut battlers off from the league’s 500,000 strong subscriber-base. Having formed the backbone of UK battle rap culture, the demise of Don’t Flop brought the scene to a complete standstill and almost no battles were organised in the UK between April and October 2017.
This did little to dampen battlers’ competitiveness though, with the final Don’t Flop title match between Soul and Shox the Rebel being widely considered their best yet. Even in the absence of Don’t Flop, battle rap’s fire is still alive- with a slew of leagues emerging in 2017 to fill the vacuum and a recent turn towards battling in the mainstream, from James Cordon’s Mic Drop to the release of battle rap feature films Vs. and Bodied last year.
In 2019, it is hard to say if battle rap is still recovering from the fall of Don’t Flop or is just at a low point altogether but, on many levels, these questions are irrelevant. Despite a fraction of the members, UK battle forums and groups are just as active as ever and fans are more than willing to take up a stake to support the community. There are a whole host of battle rap personalities and commentators; from the pleasantly erudite Cambridgeshire podcaster Tom Kwei and his channel Battle Rap Resume to cameraman Liam Bagnall’s hilarious but brief series Bad Bars, UK battle rap is practically an industry of its own. More recently, Premier Battles introduced their own flagship podcast Sarcasm City while notorious characters Chuckie P, Blunt Ted and Magic Mic combine to form the fittingly named Trolls Under the Bridge Youtube Channel, despite King of the Ronalds holding their final event earlier this year. Clearly, all those involved in the culture are not about to let UK battle rap die just yet.
Case in point… UK Battle Rap and Premier Battles specifically, looked set to take another massive blow earlier this month when after months of promotion a number of headline acts pulled out with only a few weeks notice. With one of the biggest venues in Manchester locked in, the battle community came together and put on a completely revamped card within a couple of days. The resulting line up amounted to one of the most memorable events in recent UK Battle rap history.
UK battle rap has come a long way from the endless mum jokes and awful setups, developing to the point that battles often contain a whole mixtape’s worth of bars and many battle rappers don’t even make music, their skills are devoted solely to battling. Enlisting Pay-per views and headline venues like Concrete and Ministry of Sound, the modern experience of watching battle rap feels almost like an MMA event or, in Premier Battles’ case, a football match. Nonetheless, the UK battle scene has an electricity that is hard to find elsewhere- from its extreme characters to clashes that push lyricism itself to its extremities, UK battle rappers are genuinely the stuff of legend. Despite all the highs and lows, it has been and always will remain an obscure but flourishing pillar of UK hip hop. TIME.
For more on UK battle rap check out the documentary ‘War of Words – Battle Rap in the UK’ or the feature film VS., both heavily featuring contributions from active battlers in the scene. To catch up with some of the latest from the scene’s resident characters check out the footage from the “Battling Demons for Pete’s Sake” event that recently dropped on Premier Battles’ YouTube channel. With its wacky battle concepts and all proceeds going towards mental health charities (in the name of late journalist, battler and all-round legend Pete Cashmore), nothing sums up the weird & wonderful world of UK battle rap better.
[A/N: All this is not to mention the Grime scene, which has a rich history of its own. Clashes between Wiley and Kano or Devilman and Skepta on Lord of the Mics are genuine milestones in UK music history and have been survived more recently by the on-beat battles on Words and Weapons, Don’t Flop and Who’s Da Boss. Nonetheless, focusing intensely on releasing energy and securing a wheel-up, grime’s rap battles appear to be more rooted in Jamaica’s soundclashes than the UK hip hop scene and, honestly, deserves a chronology of its own.]
Header Photo credit Patrick Currier